Panic in the disco(urse)

The Higher Education (HE) world and the associated academic discourse would appear to be in a state of panic right now – at least in the British and American HE sectors.

We have open rebellion at Durham against online learning and COVID-19 gutting finances whilst (going by job boards, LinkedIn, etc) an apparent rush to hire instructional designers and learning technologists is underway.

I’ve commented previously that the race to online learning due to COVID feels like a hollow ‘victory’ for those of us who have been advocating for this for a long time as the news remains grim.  Rationalisation and innovation seems to be finally happening in HE but at the risk of institutions that, for all their faults, are often major employers and bring inward investment to our towns and cities.  For someone who went to (physical) university in Hull and Sheffield I have plenty of personal experience of seeing how university campuses have a part to play in urban regeneration and our post-industrial landscapes!

It is at least 15 years ago now that online learning has been in place and ready to transform the HE sector – I don’t think I have my slides any more but I was (in part jovially) booed on stage at the University of Leeds in 2012 during an Articulate event.  Whilst it is scary to say it that is 8 years ago we have not really seen any major change to the UK HE sector from the privatisation, and push to online, that I was booed about.  Now, finally, COVID seems to be asking some of the big questions expected back then – for example, should there be shared resources versus reinventing the wheel at different universities:

This alludes to the problem of unis adding little value from one another in core curriculum across many subjects.  This is familiar to L&D teams when we think about pumping out ever more content on, say, leadership – rather than curating or adding value through, for example, original research.  It also alludes to the failure (in my eyes) of the HE library profession in they have been pushed down a collection management route – with reading lists often the limit of their eLearning ambitions.

That universities are struggling, even a decade+ after many introduced blended learning, is partly surprising.  Durham, for example, have had some excellent learning technologists in that time and I am glad to say I have bounced ideas of a number of them at their Blackboard eLearning conferences (albeit that I haven’t been for a number of years!).  This is in part anti-online snobbery but also in-part based on truth – for example, actually doing physical activity may be needed for some degrees and be difficult to replicate online – science experiments, underwater archaeology or electrical engineering to name a few examples.

That so many schools have moved online easily also shows the weakness of HE – for many staff “teaching” is a chore beyond the core driver (namely research) thus to be forced to put effort into teaching becomes a further challenge.  This is in part why learning technologists have emerged in the UK – to manage the time consuming setup and admin of online learning for the lecturers.  Schools for younger, <18, age groupss, in the last few weeks, have succeed thanks to the primary driver of teachers (or at least good ones) being the students interests and they have made use of their control over their class/subject to do things quickly ‘their way’.  This again alludes to waste, compared to shared resources (or full OER) but also should allow teachers to continue to support their students – which might be more difficult if using centralised resources.  Schools and universities share a focus on knowledge development for assessment (lets be honest) so have no real difference in ‘goal’ but seem to be experiencing things differently through the crisis due to their cultures.  Is this in part due to schools tending toward 100% contracts, with cultures where many teachers work outside of their scheduled hours?  Meanwhile HE has become too messy with labour costs and thus are looking to pass on to ‘cheaper’ learning techs and other teams, see, for example the very debatable argument in the Tweet below and through partnering with private online providers:

Fascinating times and lets hope that not too many jobs are lost in the end but money is better spent and blended learning used in more programmes and in better ways.

The obligatory Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) post: With virtual working and online learning on most of our minds

This post has been in different stages of draft for a week or more and I am just doing a quick edit of the below before pushing it out – well aware that anything written on this topic soon becomes out-of-date. For example, the Facebook group mentioned below has gone from about 8000 members to 44000 in the last week.

Seeking the positivies

I would imagine I am in the majority on Coronavirus – namely a group thinking the response seemed excessive but unwilling to speak out too loudly in case this really does spread and start killing a far greater percentage of populations.  As we now hit pandemic stage it feels more real – not least in furthering all appreciation of the incredible medical service staff we have around the world who battle on whatever the conditions. However, whilst turning the corner feels a way off yet we can see some real advantages starting to emerge.

From trade shows, MBAs, sports events and more we are seeing rearrangements and cancellations.  For those, like me, who have been banging the drum for a long time about the advantages of online learning and remote working this might be ‘our time’. 

Remote conferences, trade shows, etc.

For trade shows and conferences the downsides to restrictions are that we lose some of the advantages of events – for example, they can help us find things through serendipity and “on the fringes”, including through chatting and socializing.  This is more difficult when self-selecting webinars and other online events that act as the equivalent of conference sessions. One thing I am trying to do is to network in a wider sense, including reaching out to people on LinkedIn and attending webinars from organisations I have not previously engaged with. Ongoing communicating can replace some of this, not least through peer networking online.

It has always been a bit ironic that some of the biggest online players in their different fields also have huge people gatherings – such as Microsoft, Workday and Blackboard events. In some ways you have to hope the move of events such as the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference (BBTLC), for 2020, being moved online will further encourage improvements in the offers of those companies. On a side note, I think it is nine years since I last attended, and presented, at BBTLC! Time flies!

Remote learning

A Facebook group – Educator Temporary School Closure – is already showing the power of informal collaboration and networking in helping those impacted by school closures. This is a massive network already with sharing and supporting in a collaborative way. The disadvatnages are there though – not least Facebook’s poor file management and search. For those of who have been community managers, intranet editors, etc these problems can be frustrating and group owners are clearly playing a loosing battle with people just posting the same questions over and over again. Basically a knowledge management nightmare – but better than no social learning at all!

Of course a problem of the speed here is that people are “getting by” dealing with immediate needs – will organisations find time to breath and realize there are specialists available to help (such as online community managers)? I am torn here a little as I advocate simple solutions but also aware that there will be lots of bad practice – for example generating huge files, duplication of effort due to lack of sharing between organisations, eLearning that ignores accessibility standards, etc. For teachers this is rapid professional development and hopefully, as Donald Clark writes, they will be better teachers for the experience. This all said, it does feel like there are clear opportunities for learning technologists and other groups to help the overwhelming load of free offers and advice that is currently being pumped out (yes, including this article I know). For example, plenty in this image (that was shared with me this week) is debatable:

It is depressing that it has taken something like this to lead to a change for so many. For example a TES article describing this as a chance to start to experiment with flipped learning really got my eyes rolling – I was helping deploy such models at scale about a decade ago (and there are obviously plenty of practitioners with more experience than me).

Parents stuck at home with their children will hopefully also be more useful advocates for digital learning in the future – both for their children but also when back into their own workplaces. In addition, they will have seen many of the difficulties teachers face and we may have a better balance of teacher/parent expectations overall in global society.

Perhaps the real advantage for schools, universities and other education institutions is that this is offering something of a holy grail in education – control groups.  We often hear that you cannot deprive learners of opportunities.  Thus education research is difficult.  Here we have a perfect opportunity to compare, at scale, data against previous years and those not impacted by closures as control groups. We should have some real data about what kind of models work, provided people have some time to number crunch!

Remote working

Remote leadership, willingness to delegate and trust are challenges that have long existed for those who are used to working in virtual teams.  These are now ‘normal’ issues for many more people and we can reimagine work around outcomes, not time spent, and develop our online networking skills. Clair Lew and others have lots of great tips on what meetings can look like remotely and more.

Hopefully commuting will be increasingly seen for what it is (a waste of time and energy for many) and better ways of working will be established. Obviously this does not relate some of the wonderful people out there who will continue to be tied to their place of work in hospitals, shops and other fields. That said, interesting to see Microsoft’s new Teams offer to healthcare being launched at this point in history.

I have written before about my love of Teams and it seems, from browsing Twitter and other sources, that it does seem to have become the de facto platform for many. As Rachel Burnham says, Teams is now everywhere. This is where I would like to add a celebratory gif. Rachel hits a good point though that L&D teams seem to be reverting to thinking about Teams as an LMS. Similarly schools closed for Covid will think about “lessons”, “timetables” and more. These may be useful starting points but the platform can (and should?) be more transformational (of course many are firmly in the S stage of SAMR currently).

Saving the environment

Science fiction is full of examples where mankind has to face a major event to limit the damage it is doing to the planet, World War 3 in Star Trek for example.  The virus so far has cut pollution in China and offers to cull airlines following the collapse of Flybe and US-Schengen travel.  Many of us will have spent time in pointless or, at best, overly long meetings in the past and this might make us far more appreciate of the implications of travel.

Hopefully the numbers will remain not too bad

This site has some really good graphs and number crunching on the implications of the virus spread, even at this stage the numbers are relatively small and that is something of a positive to hold onto. Best of luck out there to those with health conditions, elderly relatives, etc who are at risk.

10 years of Twitter

I recently received my “10th #twitterversary” email from Twitter and it made me reflect on my use of the platform.

I’ve never been a big tweeter, tending to use it share at events and also retweet/like things that I would later blog about from those same events.  Otherwise my use has been fairly limited.

Going back through my old tweets, tweet number one was:

That tweet is pretty indicative of my focus at the time – working with the Blackboard LMS/VLE and supporting users with/via free tech (like Screenr was).  In my early tweets, as with Screenr, there are a notable volume of dead-links – basically showing how Twitter is indicative of the web’s tendency for large amounts of redundant data.  The Blackboard focus includes plenty of early tweets from ongoing events such as #LondonBUG as well as historic date stamped hashtags like #BbTLC11.

More recently I have tried to shift from the work-only focus with an update to my profile (to include other interests like dog, football and gaming) to show more of my ‘personal’ side.  I’ve also written about being sucked into politics and tweeting about that – which obviously was not the intention ten years ago when tweeting new Blackboard resources!  Yet politics ‘sells’, considering my last tweet got 75 likes more than any other I think.

The often ignored realities of talent management (#2): one real solution for (screen based) workplace productivity

I think some posts on this topic have been lost on an old blog of mine so it can come in here as the second in this series…


Do you hunch over a laptop?  Do you constantly switch between apps, windows and tabs?  Are you desk based but just have one monitor?

If you answer yes to any of these questions a simple solution to improve your productivity may be to get more displays.

This is increasingly recognised (see a Guardian article here) and was touched upon at a JISC keynote that I must have seen/been about 10 years ago now.

A short post but a useful one – if your organisation presumes only IT, fx traders or other internal groups are worthy of multiple monitors then they are probably selling you down the river.


Miss #1 in the series? Here’s a link to location, location, location.

Thoughts on L&D Recruitment 2 of 2: Applying

As a follow up to my previous post, now some thoughts on my job hunt.

It’s over two years since my last job search, this time self-inflicted rather than redundancy driven.  I had gone very ‘eggs in one basket’ for a role in an organisation I am really keen on (but have heard today they do not want me for a second interview).  That said I have a couple of other applications ‘out there’ that would also be fantastic.

So let’s think about roles in a bit more detail…

Like when in that career gap last time (see Why I Work in ‘Learning’) it is a time of reflection and consideration.  The challenge is that my primary driver remains the same – I enjoy help[ing] people better themselves in the context of their organisation/environment.  This should, you would you think, leave plenty of room for opportunities aligned to my past experience and education – traditional L&D, digital learning, research, libraries and information management, operational support, etc.  However, I worry this is perhaps too vague a driver?  I suspect being ‘generalist’ (working across the ‘lifecycle’ of ADDIE-esque work for example rather than just instructional design or digital development) and keen to continue to adapt my sector expertise (having worked in FE, HE, professional services and healthcare) goes against what employers (myself included in that first post) look for, i.e.:

Someone to hit the ground running.

Rather than consider experience from other sectors and that it probably demonstrates adaptability in combination with the correct knowledge and skills too many recruiters, it seems, have an inflexible idea of what they want.  This is primarily articulated in my personal bugbear, the bloody “10 years of experience” line, when you could do nothing for 10 years or so and (in that model) be a better candidate just because you are in the correct industry.  I would argue, and it is the case with my experience, you could have experience across sectors/industries where you have achieved consistently – moving your organisations’ learning approaches forward every time – which is far more valuable than sitting on your hands in industry x for 10 years or more.

Yes, this is in some ways contradictory to my first post – I’m more than aware I’m not drinking my own champagne here in the balance of looking for a capable, experienced and reliable candidate.

…and me

Inevitably you also start to worry if personality is the issue.  I remember being given a talk ‘to one side’, when others were on a coffee break, in my post redundancy outplacement support that I didn’t seem enthused by the mock-interviews and doing our ‘elevator pitch’ type prep.

This is because I wasn’t, I feel the process tired and out of date.  I generally don’t like the introvert/extrovert dichotomy as I think it all depends on context but it is incredibly difficult to portray a personality in an interview and, as a person applying and a recruiter, I need to keep that in mind.

…and organisations

Part of my rather fuzzy ethos is that opportunities should be open to all.  However, there are many reasons why people have traditionally got by with ‘who you know not what you know’.  This is where I feel we can all improve upon this now – there is a very real opportunity to express an interest and allow that organisation to say “okay, let’s take a look” – online portfolios, twitter, LinkedIn, etc, etc. will give you a picture of their expertise and personality.  This is far greater than what can be perceived in an interview, although I would agree that the face-to-face or virtual meeting skills should still come across that way.

I wanted to give a shoutout here to https://www.smartrecruiters.com/ which seems by far the smoothest application process I have come across – express an interest backed up by your social links and ask for a call/email back if they are interested in you.  A great idea.  This also keeps things personal, unlike some of the recruitment systems out there, certainly when I was applying for this a couple of years back many of these just seemed to be tests of patience/willing.

Sure, if you get 100s of applications you probably need some automatic filtering but keep things personal to some level. Please!  For example, one role I applied for in late July still has my application status as “application received” two months later.  I’ve tried following up via a contact at that company (no reply, so okay, bad sign) but there is not even a generic ‘careers’ email, never mind a bot of live chat for me to say “hey, I’m still interested – what’s going on?”.

Dear Hiring Organisations,

look, I know you are looking to fill quickly and easily but remember many of your applicants (like me) will have been in that position too.  Think about how your recruitment makes you seem in terms of personality, transparency, etc.  I’d also say this may well be hidden away from most hiring managers so, hey, Recruitment teams – sort it out!

Flexibility

One thing I have looked at in detail this time is remote work.  This would be my preference just due to locations and personal circumstances (I am splitting my time between countries and due another house move in a few months).  However, whilst the business press, L&D (via webinars and collaboration), etc. all talk a lot about this there are virtually zero roles.  Some learning designers are home based but many will include that all important “regular visit to Brighton, London, Nottingham, etc” in the text.  We seem to lack a truly global approach to recruitment even in big organisations – again, you wonder why when organisations say they have multiple unfilled vacancies and are stymied by skills shortages they remained locked to physical locations.  Talent is everywhere, businesses remain locked to location with Brexit, GDPR and other trends just seemingly reinforcing old mindsets.

At the conference I presented at last year, there was a discussion where the room considered future talent needs.  I made the point that employers can’t continue to complain about skills gaps when they remain so inflexible.

It is in this research on virtual/remote work that I’ve come across Rodolphe Dutel who has some excellent resources and advice.  He is also, possibly, the first person I’ve come across who genuinely replies to emails from people subscribed to his newsletters so kudos to him too.

For now

I continue to support my old team and will keep my eyes open for that next new role!